It was on the night of August 14, 1974, that the Argentine literary giant Jorge Luis Borges was wrapped in a surreal dream. In the recesses of his subconscious, he violently attacked Jaime Rest, his former assistant professor at the University of Buenos Aires. The act was so vivid, and the irrational hatred so visceral, that upon waking, Borges considered the bizarre notion of calling Rest to apologize—for an offense committed only in the world of dreams.
This complex dynamic between Borges and Rest epitomizes their relationship, which spanned from 1956 to 1963 at the University of Buenos Aires, where they were head and assistant professor of English literature, respectively. Borges, himself a labyrinth of intricate ideas, once described Rest in a conversation with close friends Adolfo Bioy Casares and Manuel Peyrou as a figure of “notable ugliness,” reminiscent of “rough and vigorous animals, like the wild boar.”
Literary critic Maximiliano Crespi suggests that Rest's physical features, however unattractive, would fade from notice as he began discussing literature. Rest had a sort of “monstrous enchantment” that captivated his listeners and led them through the fascinating corridors of his intellectual vision.
Aníbal Ford, who was a student under both Borges and Rest in 1957, penned an observation that the duo was like a “strange duo that seemed to come out of some English novel of the 19th century.” Ford was convinced that among the two, Rest was the real scholar. While Borges lost himself in the worlds of chivalric heroes like Beowulf, Rest dug deep into modern texts like Virginia Woolf's “The Waves” and T.S. Eliot's “The Waste Land.”
It seems Rest had an undying fascination with T.S. Eliot, a fixation that even invited criticisms. Jorge Lafforgue, who later rose to prominence as an Argentine critic and publisher, was one such critic. But he concedes that Rest's elucidation of Eliot's poetry revealed an “unusual beauty,” making it “revolutionary poetry beyond those who gave birth to it.”
Rest believed that reading “The Waste Land” was almost like looking into a literary Aleph—an object that contains all the knowledge of the universe. He saw in Eliot's work a vast intertextual tapestry that encompassed everything from Greek and Egyptian mythology to Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” but re-contextualized these ancient texts in a contemporary framework.
The Critic who Refused to Judge
If Borges navigated the reader through intricate labyrinths, Rest was the philosopher questioning the very nature of those labyrinths. Maximiliano Crespi notes that Rest had a peculiar 'critical ethos': he refrained from dictating judgments on literary texts and was more interested in exploring their multiple layers of meaning. His works, though scattered, stood at the confluence of erudite research and essayistic inquiry.
Beyond academia, Rest had a humanistic bent. During his tenure at the National University of the South in Bahía Blanca, Rest was more than just a traditional scholar. He took his lessons beyond the university walls, cycling to the shantytowns with his students to deliver the same lectures he had given in the classroom—an act that would eventually cost him his job due to “suspicious conduct in his extra-academic activities.”
Rest passed away on November 8, 1979, in a research office at the University of Belgrano. His death was sudden, and he was found, fittingly, surrounded by books. His life, much like the characters that inhabit the literary worlds he so admired, was a blend of complexities, multitudes, and an ever-present enigma.
In Borges' unsettling dream, we can perhaps catch a glimpse of the relationship between two intellectual titans—enigmatic, contradictory, yet bound together in their shared quest for understanding the boundless territories of literature. And in the quietude of Rest's own end, maybe he found what all great minds search for: a profound silence that transcends the cacophony of words.
In-Text Citation: Erlan, Diego. ‘Jaime Rest, El Adjunto de Borges | Diego Erlan’. Revista de La Universidad de México, https://www.revistadelauniversidad.mx/articles/d5d7b042-c6bb-4477-b029-5318883503d8/jaime-rest-el-adjunto-de-borges. Accessed 17 Sept. 2023.